August 13, 2017

Wildfire Smoke Brought Radioactivity and Ozone

Now many folks were unhappy with the low visibility and dismal skies during our wildfire smoke period.  And I know a number of you were discomforted by the particles in the air.

But there is more.   According to U.S. government measurements, radioactivity and ozone were higher as well.

I wasn't aware of the radioactivity issue until I received an email from Tim Celeski of who provided a link to the Environmental Protection Agency's RadNet website (another good reason why we need EPA, by the way).

Here is the gamma radiation count from Seattle. Gamma radiation is very high energy electromagnetic radiation and are capable of ionizing (stripping electrons) from atoms.  Values jumped up on August 3, when the smoke reached Seattle and started to decline yesterday.  Note that is a logarithmic scale so the jump is significant.

 They also break the radiation down by energy range.  Similar story.

Wildfires inject burned and other materials into the air, and if any long-lived radioactive materials (like Cesium-137) attach to the smoke particles, they can travel substantial distances.  As noted by two colleagues of mine at WSU (Brian Lamb and Yunha Lee), such suspension of radioactive material by wildfires has been observed and studied before.

So where did the radioactivity come from in the soils and plant materials in the area of the BC fires?  I am no expert in this, but one could speculate there could be deposition from the Fukushima event, the remnants of previous above ground atomic testing, or perhaps natural radioactivity in the soils.   Perhaps one of you knows more about this.

And then there was ozone...VERY high levels of ozone that were produced by the numerous BC fires.  

Fires produce nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons that can combine to produce ozone. . According to my UW Bothell colleague (and a specialist in NW atmospheric chemistry)  Dan Jaffe, the ozone levels were stunning.

8hr average values at Enumclaw hit 103 and sites near PDX reached 116.   And many sites that don't usually exceed the standard, like Eugene, were way over.

This chart shows maximum 8-hr ozone averages on August 3.  Reds are very high.

The U.S. ozone standard is based on a maximum amount of 70 parts per billion (ppb).  Specifically, an area will meet the standards if the 4th highest maximum daily 8-hour ozone concentration each year, averaged over three years, is 70 ppb or below. Ozone can irritate the lungs and sensitive nasal passages.

In total, Enumclaw has been over the 70 ppb standard  for 8hr on 8 days since 7/31. Wow.

How about Mud Mountain Dam (near Mt. Rainier) and Issaquah (see below)?  Lots of times above 70 ppb!

According to Dr. Jaffe, we have not seen O3 like this in decades.

So with smoke adding lots of particles into the atmosphere (documented in previous blogs), high ozone levels, a depressing sky with little visibility, and some radioactivity thrown in for good measure, it is no wonder some folks were not feeling so good during the last week.


  1. I believe residents of Denver are exposed to twice the amount of ionizing radiation as we are due to elevation; that's on an ongoing basis. Hard to imagine this is a drop in the bucket compared to that. Still, it's interesting. I'm curious about the cause as well. It seems like Chernobyl would be a stronger candidate as a man-made source than Fukushima (as much more was released into the air); still relatively recent but more time for plants to absorb it.

  2. Another interesting and well-documented phenomenon is that the ambient radioactivity increases when it rains. This is because the rain droplets adsorb some of the radioactive byproducts from Radon gas decay, and deposits them on the ground. The correlation is actually so strong that you can use the radioactivity as a fairly accurate measure of precipitation rate.

    Both this and the smoke-brought radioactivity is basically harmless, of course. It's a very small increase over natural background rates.

  3. Interesting as physics, but is it more than a curiosity to the public? Anyone guesstimate a millirem dose to a person in the area?

    Let me try and see if it provokes a physicist to do a better job! In the U.S. roughly 3/4 of our 300 rem background dose is from radon. That's alpha emission, so all gamma is something under 75 rem as a ceiling.

    From the plot, these gamma counts went up to about 1.3×, which at the max would be +23 on the 75 rem. Except that would be if it continued for the whole year. For two weeks it's about 1/25 of that, call it +1 rem. About half a chest X-ray.

  4. Before we jump to the conclusion that the radioactivity was manmade, consider that plants require potassium to survive, and K-40 is the greatest natural exposure to radiation for most plants and the animals that eat them. Potassium is largely absent from the air away from the sea, except when cellular salts becomes aerosolized in a huge wildfire.

    Another natural source would be soil radium. Radium is a Group 2 element under calcium, which means that plant tissues will take it up just as they will also take up strontium and barium.

    Only once these two natural sources have been accounted for should we start investigating manmade isotopes like Sr-90 and Cs-137.

  5. I noticed environment Canada had high UV rating 9 for Victoria BC during this outflow smoke event...!

  6. Why do the ozone levels fluctuate so dramatically? If they were largely due to the smoke, I'd think they would be more constant.

  7. Your colleagues collect all this data to help gauge outlook but no one is gauging spiritual data. As Jesus said "you say the sky is red and lowering and you predict a change in weather yet you don't know the time and season"
    The season for Israel was coming to a halt. The Romans invaded 70 years later and Jesus saw that storm coming.
    One can be so discerning of physical elements and make predictions yet spiritual signs get ignored
    Oh if your calling was not limited to making relatively mundane predictions about weather and one could bring a real outlook to aid the people. Sure it's good to have your services and they benefit truly. But there is a higher gospel calling.
    of gauging times and seasons

  8. Not entirely true Unknown. There are many, many efforts to compile statistical data on matters of the spirit, this being only one:

    You will note by the graphic that in relative terms, North Americans are actually pretty damn happy (as good a measure of spirit as any), even as they convince themselves they are not. However we would be wise to pay attention to the observations of Nobel prize winning Daniel Kahneman, who more recently turned his cognitive psychology skills toward the study of human happiness. He notes 2 simple things:

    Money does indeed buy people happiness. However more money will not buy you more happiness.

    curiously, he doesn't mention ozone or radioactivity much.

  9. I have just returned from the Tetons, where I spent the last week hiking and climbing. It was smoky the whole way there (I drove through southern Idaho) and the majority of the time I was there, with the exception of Thursday. It was especially bad most of the way back through Montana, until I got West of Spokane yesterday, after the rain.

    This is without a doubt the worst smoke event I have ever experienced. Perhaps not the most concentrated smoke, but by far the most widespread. I heard that it got nearly to the East coast.

    I'll have to check for radioactivity under the downspouts with my Geiger counter.

  10. Oh now you tell me.

    I continued to ride my bike, thinking smoke, no big deal. But radioactivity? That may have altered my thinking.

    Oh well, gotta die of something.

  11. Are any of the fires downwind from Hanford and PNNL?

  12. Hi Cliff,

    I'd be interested in your thoughts on James Hohmann's column in today's WA Post, entitled:
    "Evidence of climate change abounds amid extreme weather in the Pacific Northwest".

    The article includes this paragraph (quoting the latest US Gov't climate report):
    "In Washington State, Oregon and Idaho specifically, the government report says that the average annual temperature has already gone up 1.51 degrees since 1901-1960 and is projected to rise another 4.67 degrees by midcentury and 8.51 degrees by the end of the century if carbon pollution continues unabated."

    I find an increase of 4.67 degrees by midcentury to be pretty alarming. You can locate his article at this link:

    Many thanks for your very informative climate blog posts,

  13. John, for the umpteenth time, if you care to understand the blog host's thoughts on this subject, you can easily peruse his many past postings regrading climate change and it's effects on the PNW. Why folks continually come on here and wish to revisit past issues that have been beaten to death elsewhere, one can only speculate.

  14. It's always fun to see the Worldwide Cult of Global Warming chime in on a topic that has no bearing on the subject. These days, the cult points to every single non-average weather event to flog their religion. So much for their old "weather isn't climate" mantra. It was never serious back then, and they are not serious now. Only desperate.

    1. Do any of you remember the media spouting 'global cooling' concerns in the 70s? Do your homework people.

  15. Might as well add those miniscule but very very scientifically interesting radiation to the cult fanatics that saw too many Godzilla movies.

    Seriously, just fly from Seattle to New York, better yet live in Denver if you want to accure some Rads..

    Very interesting data though. Impressive ozone numbers. Fascinating on the bump in radiation.. (ohh nooo it must be North Korea...)lol

    Personally, I think we are doomed. So few actually comprehend Cliff's climate change message. It appears we are just going to freak out on both extream sides of the "debate". Lemmings our species is.:(

  16. Radioactivity is common in all smoke. Wood contains several minerals that have naturally occurring radioactive isotopes. As far as man-made fallout, coal smoke from China dwarfs anything that may have come from Fukushima. Yes, coal emissions have released more radioactive pollution globally than what has been produced by reactor accidents - by a long shot.

    Here's some good info:

  17. Organic Farmer - I personally agree, but not because of GW. The last real plague (i.e Pandemic) that hit the earth was near the turn of the last century, and we never found a cure for it, it burned itself out after millions of horrible and gruesome deaths. We've forestalled others from doing the same kind of damage, but sooner or later one is going to come that will be unlike the others. The earth will be rid of our species soon enough - either we begin efforts to colonize other planets or our kind will be no longer.

  18. I grew up in the 1960s and '70s, and remember it very well. Lots of "New Ice Age" stories in the press, citing esteemed authorities. The Worldwide Church of Global Warming denies that these stories ever appeared, but -- as usual -- they lie.

  19. Hi Cliff. Great blog you got.

    If you haven't noticed yet: the smoke cleared, Ozone returned back to normal, yet radioactivity didn't. The logical conclusion is that while the smoke may have contributed, something else entirely is causing the bulk of the radioactivity uptick.

    My related blogposts were:

    Looked at how it DIDN'T return to "normal"?

    I don't know what's going on, but I suspect there was more to the radiation shift.

    Kind Regards,

    Michaƫl VB


Please make sure your comments are civil. Name calling and personal attacks are not appropriate.

The Cooling Has Begun

 The differences in temperature between noon today (Wednesday) and yesterday are quite large west of the Cascade crest (see plot below).  So...